Judge Allows Google To Restore Gmail Account That Received Misdirected Email

by , Sep 29, 2009, 5:45 PM
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Consider this scenario: A bank employee mistakenly leaves a message with confidential information about customers on the wrong person's voicemail. The next day the bank realizes its mistake and leaves a second message asking the customer to delete the first.

If the bank didn't get a response, could it drag the phone company into court and get an order disconnecting the user's phone service?

It's hard to imagine that the answer would be yes. Yet federal district court judge James Ware in California had no problem ordering that Google deactivate a user's Gmail account in a similar situation.

Last week, Ware issued the deactivation order at the request of the Rocky Mountain Bank of Wyoming, which had mistakenly emailed some unknown user information about more than 1,000 customers. When the bank realized its error, it sent a follow-up email asking the user to contact it, but never got a response.

On Monday -- five full days after mandating deactivation -- Ware vacated his order at the joint request of Google and the bank, allowing Google to restore the user's access to the account.

The bank now says the misdirected email was deleted unopened. "Rocky Mountain Bank, working closely with Google (through court order), confirmed on Thursday of last week that the email containing client information was never opened and has now been permanently destroyed by Google's system," bank director Jennifer Mayfield said in an email to MediaPost.

It's still not clear whether the user saw the email and made a decision to delete it unread, or if the user never noticed the email and it was erased automatically (as would happen if it went to a spam filter). Mayfield also says that the bank has implemented new security procedures aimed at preventing this kind of data breach in the future.

But that's not to say that another bank won't make a similar mistake in the future, or that another judge won't issue similar deactivation orders in the future.

In fact, until the courts realize that the Web is every bit as critical to sharing information as TV, the telephone and snail mail, it seems all but inevitable that another judge will cut off some hapless user's access to data in the cloud. And that should spook everyone who stores information in an email account, or a blog, or through any other Web-based service.

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